NASA just released their new images of Pluto and they are stunning. The header image above features Pluto’s crescent and was captured on July 14th by New Horizons Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging (MVIC) camera and downlinked on September 13. In it we see the incredible Plutonian landscape backlit by the Sun.
“This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, in a statement. “But this image is also a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto’s atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains.”
The breathtaking new view showcases an area 1,250 kilometers (748 miles) across. In it we see part of the heart of Pluto—a region informally named Sputnik Planum—and the icy mountains surrounding it.
Earlier data collected by the LORRI instrument revealed Pluto’s tenuous, nitrogen-rich atmosphere to be layered and hazy. In this image we can see more than a dozen layers of thin atmospheric haze that extends as high as 100 kilometers (60 miles). Also visible is what appears to be a bank of low-lying fog highlighted as the Sun sets against Pluto’s dark side. Pluto could experience daily, changing weather just like we have here on Earth.
"In addition to being visually stunning, these low-lying hazes hint at the weather changing from day to day on Pluto, just like it does here on Earth," said Will Grundy, lead of the New Horizons Composition team from Lowell Observatory, Flagstaff, Arizona.
After the first close-up images were beamed back from New Horizons, the science team began to find evidence that it could snow on Pluto, granted the snow would not be like what we have here on Earth. These latest images help to back that up by providing evidence that Pluto has an Earth-like hydrological cycle; however, rather than water ice this process would involve exotic ices such as nitrogen ice. The heart of Pluto—aka Sputnik Planum—is a frozen plain, rich in nitrogen ice. As this area is exposed to the little bit of sunlight Pluto receives, the ices heat and the nitrogen evaporates. It then falls back down in the form of snow in the surrounding mountains. The team thinks the ice then returns to Sputnik Planum in the form of glacial flow as seen in previous images.
"We did not expect to find hints of a nitrogen-based glacial cycle on Pluto operating in the frigid conditions of the outer solar system,” said Alan Howard, a member of the mission’s Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. “Driven by dim sunlight, this would be directly comparable to the hydrological cycle that feeds ice caps on Earth, where water is evaporated from the oceans, falls as snow, and returns to the seas through glacial flow.”
These images are just a taste of what’s to come as it will take New Horizons 12 more months to fully downlink all the data collected from the flyby. What we’ve seen so far has shown what was once thought to be a boring, icy body devoid of any activity to be dynamic and surprisingly Earth-like. According to Stern “no one predicted it.”